Fruitful Branches – Br. David Vryhof

I John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

We live in a culture that expects us to be fruitful and productive.  We are encouraged to produce, to accomplish, to achieve.   We are rewarded for our efforts and applauded for our successes. Our ability to produce or to achieve heightens our worth in the eyes of others, and often in our own eyes as well.  We feel good about ourselves when we are able to accomplish important tasks or achieve ‘success’; we despair when we feel that we have accomplished little, or when our accomplishments seem less significant than those of others.

God is interested in our fruitfulness and productivity as well, but in ways that are significantly different from those which society values.  In today’s gospel reading, Jesus reveals the source and secret of fruitfulness, drawing on the familiar imagery of the vine and the branches.  I’d like to explore that image with you this morning, by looking at three things: (1) the source of fruitfulness; (2) the secret of fruitfulness; and (3) the signs of fruitfulness.

The Source of Fruitfulness

In his illustration, Jesus makes it very clear that we are not the source of our own fruitfulness.  Fruitfulness is not the end result of careful planning or dedicated effort on our part.  It is not the product of our own cleverness, ingenuity or insight.  The fruitfulness that God desires and values is not something we can produce on our own.  Just as a branch is helpless to produce fruit apart from the vine that is the source of its fruitfulness, says Jesus, so we are helpless to produce the fruit that God desires apart from God, who is the source of that fruitfulness.

Jesus explains to his disciples that the life-giving connection they have with him is the same life-giving connection he has with the Father.  “I can do nothing on my own…,” he tells his disciples (Jn 5:30).  All that he says and does proceeds from his intimate connection with God.  He is here to do God’s will, not his own.  It is to be the same for his followers.

Everything depends on maintaining and strengthening the communion we have with God in Christ.  We bear fruit by remaining connected to Jesus, just he bears fruit through his connection with the Father.  We are not the originators of the divine grace that comforts and heals and saves; we are simply mediators and instruments of this grace.  Jesus and the Father make their home within us, living and acting with us.  It is their divine life, the life of the Trinity, which flows through us and produces fruit.

I saw a wonderful expression of this principle many years ago, when I had a job caring for children with disabilities.  I remember watching a young boy at dinner time, struggling to cut a piece of meat.  He tried and tried, but his hands and arms were simply too weak to be effective.  As I watched, one of the staff members came up behind him and reaching around, laid her hands on his and began cutting the meat.  Suddenly he was able to do what he could not do on his own, with her strength joined to his, the two strengths becoming one, and it being unclear where his strength left off and hers began.  In the same way, God joins God’s strength and life to ours, making a fruitfulness possible that we could never have achieved on our own.  God is the source of our strength, and the cause of our fruitfulness.

I have a plant on my desk which I have to rotate once in a while because its leaves insist on turning towards the sun.  It is as if they know that the sunlight is their source of life, so they position themselves to receive as much of it as they can.  I have watched a newborn lamb bleat and search for its mother, knowing that she is the source of the nourishment that will insure life.  So we look to the Lord our God, who is the Source of our true life.

The Secret of Fruitfulness

Any vine-grower will tell you that the secret of the vine’s fruitfulness lies with the skillfulness of the pruner.  Left to themselves, grapevines prefer to grow shoots and leaves rather than grapes, and an untended vine will soon stop bearing fruit.  Its energies will be dissipated into numerous shoots and leaves, rather than into producing grapes.  Grapevines, I’m told, need radical pruning; they need to be cut back as far as possible if they are eventually to be fruitful.

Pruning isn’t a pleasant process, I suspect, either for the plant or for the vine-grower.  Likewise for us, the “pruning” God carries out in our lives can hurt and wound us, at least temporarily.  But it is just as necessary for our growth and fruitfulness.  This pruning process can take place in a variety of ways.  Sometimes God acts to take away something on which we have become overly dependent.  Sometimes God sends someone or something to try us or test us, helping us grow in new ways.  Sometimes the “pruning” results from occasions of suffering, when an unexpected event – an accident, an illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or some other painful event – hurts or wounds us.

Like the wounded vine whose branches have been cut back, we may have to wait for new life to return and to flow in us.  For a time we may feel barren and lifeless, but if we are patient, new life and growth will return.  Often we will not appreciate the pruning in the moment.  Only later will we appreciate how it forced us to grow or change, to develop new skills or ways of thinking, to adjust our expectations or our ways of dealing with others.  The ways in which these events shape and form us may be a mystery to us, until at some later point, we see how they have benefitted us.

Sometimes the pruning comes about because God inspires us to seek it.  We yearn to grow or change, to be rid of cumbersome, fruitless branches that we realize are getting in the way of true life.  We may seek to be freed from our disordered attachments; liberated from our patterns of addiction; healed of our selfishness, pride or greed.  We realize that we cannot accomplish these things on our own, and we look to God to purify and restore us.

The process of pruning is painful, but necessary.  Without it, our lives become dissipated and scattered.  Our energies flow in a thousand directions as we pursue countless distractions.  Pruning helps bring focus and intention to our lives, helping us re-direct our energies towards things that matter.  If we are wise, we will recognize the hand of the Vine-grower at work and cooperate with the process, as painful as it might be in the moment to “let go and let God,” as an A.A. slogan puts it.

The Signs of Fruitfulness

The Word became flesh in order to lead us into communion with God.  But this close connection with the life of the Trinity is not an end in itself.  It is meant to produce fruit.  The prophets criticized the people of Israel because they lost sight of the reason for their calling.  They forgot that the vine the Lord had planted and tended did not exist for itself, but in order to provide fruit.  So too, God’s invitation for us to “abide” in God as God abides in us is not an invitation to settle down and get comfortable.  It is a call to mission, a summons to fruitfulness.  We are meant to share the fruits of the divine life with others.  So what are the signs of fruitfulness?  What sort of fruit are we to produce?

Our readings today suggest two fruits in particular: love and obedience.  Because God’s nature is love, it is natural to expect that our union with God will make us more loving towards others.  “God is love,” the author of First John reminds us, “and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (I Jn 4:16).  Again, he tells us, “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; whoever does not love does not know God” (I Jn 4:7).

Our union with God produces the fruit of love.  “We love because he first loved us” (I Jn 4:19).   As we experience ourselves as beloved children of God, unconditionally and forever loved by God, we learn to love others with the same love that has been so freely given to us.  As we are forgiven, so we learn to forgive others.  As we are accepted, so we learn to accept others.  Love is God’s very nature, and therefore it is the chief characteristic of the shared life we have in God.  Love is the sign of the community which Jesus called into being, the Church.  It is the fruit which God values above all others.  Really, it’s all about love.

A second sign of a fruitful life in God is obedience.  “If you keep my commandments,” Jesus tells his disciples, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10).  This obedience is not the obedience rendered to a military commander; rather, it is the fruit of a loving relationship.  It arises from the desire to please the one whom we love, rather than from the fear of punishment.  “There is no fear in love,” First John reminds us, “but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment” (I Jn 4:18).

Jesus indwells us, and calls us his friends.  He reveals himself to us, so that we may together be one heart, one mind, one spirit, with nothing between us or separating us.  We are not servants, but friends, dear ones who are deeply loved, and the obedience we offer rises from the desire Jesus inspires in us to live in intimate union with him.  Sometimes it seems that we are so busy being God’s servants and “working for Jesus” that we forget that he wants us to be his friends, to live in union with him and to receive his love.  We must remember that our friendship and intimate union with him is the source of our fruitfulness.  He has chosen us for this purpose.

Here, then, is how our fruitfulness differs from the fruitfulness which the world expects and encourages.  We are mediators of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s power to save and heal.  As branches we receive the life of the vine and pass it along to others.  The fruitfulness is not ours, but God’s.  God is its source; God alone.  In the words of Jean Vanier, “The glory of human beings is not first and foremost to do or produce things or to build beautiful monuments or churches, to write wonderful books or to create new technology.  All these will pass.  The glory of human beings is to communicate life, pouring the oils of compassion on suffering people.  It is with Jesus and in him to transform others, to help them move from inner death, sadness and aggression to inner peace, joy and fullness of life.” (1)

This is the measure of our fruitfulness, the fruitfulness which originates with God and flows through us to others.  This is the fruitfulness that God values.

  1. Vanier, Jean; Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John; (New York: Paulist Press, 2004); p. 271.

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  1. Gerry Malmo on May 9, 2019 at 10:57

    It was interesting the entertain the continuation of yesterday’s homily that focused on “pruning”. Also, I found it thought provoking how you demonstrated the challenges of loss and setback lead to opportunities for growth. Then, I liked very much the comment of “let go and let God!”…especially in today’s society. Finally, thank you for making this available via download. Toi hear your voice, inflection, tone, etc. allows one a far greater meaning to your words. Furhter, I have the privilege of about a 15-20 minute drive into town each morning and this allows me the privilege of focusing on a positive, spiritual start for the day. To you and all of the brothers, I am grateful for these downloads!

  2. Jeanne DeFazio on May 9, 2019 at 10:15

    I am sharing this excerpt today!

    Many thanks:

    It is with Jesus and in him to transform others, to help them move from inner death, sadness and aggression to inner peace, joy and fullness of life.

    This is the measure of our fruitfulness, the fruitfulness which originates with God and flows through us to others. This is the fruitfulness that God values.

  3. marie on December 21, 2016 at 17:59

    Thank you for this beautiful message. And I am enthralled with the way the Spirit dispenses a similar message to all who love Jesus, and yet with a different twist…for a different community of believers. I love the way the Spirit imparts knowledge of the Spirit’s priorities. Love! God is love.

  4. Brenda T Faison on December 21, 2016 at 07:03

    Thank you for this wonderful devotional. It is so easy to be influenced by the world’s call to success that we forget our true calling. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. John David Spangler on December 21, 2016 at 06:38

    Dear Broter David, I thank you for giving me a wonderful birthday present. in the definition of “Abide”, you rightly observed that God’s invitation “to abide in God” was not “an invitation to settle down and get comfortable”. It is my experience that, as we repond to the “summons to fruitfulness”, we, by virue of responding, are “settled down and made comfortable”. As long as we keep responding to the “summons of fruitfulness”, our “settledness” and our being “comfortable” — thanks be to God — grow. Peace! David

  6. Greg Schaffner on December 21, 2016 at 06:00

    What a timely message for me!
    First off (and the reason I clicked on the link to your full meditation rather than simply dwell on the image), I am a composer and the work I am just now finishing up is a setting of “Abide with me.” It is being written as a thank you card for a wonderful priest named Lydia Brown. I asked her to choose the hymn and this was her choice. Our choir (I’m not the director, just one of the singers) will perform it for her shortly before or after she leaves us and we welcome a new rector. In setting this hymn, the word “abide” recurs over and over, and it is such an old fashioned word that I have had to really ponder what it means. Your sermon extends many of my thoughts and gives me a wider perspective that I will treasure. The hymn is about death and dying, and the composer (who wrote the lyrics and set it to a different melody than the one we all know) died a few weeks after completing it. I think it speaks to the “fact” that we abide in God when we ask God to abide in us. The answer is always yes. But the emotional content of the melody by Monk presents us with the “feeling” of trust and acceptance that comes from abiding with God. Letting go of our own small selves to align and submerge our lives with the larger reality can become such a habit that when death arrives, it will come like a trusted friend picking you up in a familiar old car to transport you to a wonderful party.

    The second reason this sermon is so timely is that yesterday my wife and I completed the agreement to move out of our beloved house and move into a condo. This will require a great deal of pruning as we downsize and turn over the tasks and many of the tools needed to maintain the wonderful old house to a young couple. Suddenly, I have no need for a lawnmower or my tools or the hammock, etc. Lots of furniture, some of which we inherited, goes away. It is a loss, a great sorrow. In other ways, it is a liberation. But where I find the most solace is when I think of this transition in the context of abiding in the Lord. Our house is his house, and when we move others will abide in it and in him (regardless of their faith) just as we will continue to abide with and in him in our new condo. The generations pass but the Lord abides, even beyond death.
    Thank you for your sermon, Brother Vryrhof.

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